Catching Monsters After Dark

Sometimes you just have to escape into the night, where unpredictable rendezvous and things that bite await you

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I KEPT ON TRYING, THOUGH. I spent many late nights on the water, summer and fall. On the Yellowstone River in Montana I fished some nights in darkness so murky I could hardly see the end of my fly rod, let alone the bushy White Wulff dry fly I had on. The biggest challenge at first was wading into that river's strong current more or less blind. (Of course, I had scouted the water beforehand in daylight.) Fishing with so little sensory information to go on was an activity that approached the purely theoretical; casting, letting the fly drift, and casting again became odd, empty gestures sort of like mime. Staying focused was a problem. And then, as I picked up the fly at the end of a drift, something huge grabbed it. The feeling was as if a dream had reached from the darkness and yanked hard on my arm. We battled frenziedly, in complete and mutual confusion, me spinning around and nearly falling in the current, the fish pulling with electrified desperation in one direction and then another. I never saw a glimpse of him, not even a splash or the ripples of his wake. After a short, endless time, he bent the hook out and got away. I remember him better than fish I've landed.

Sometimes I run into other night-fishing guys like me. On the beach at Sandy Hook on the New Jersey shore one October there were hundreds of us assembled in the predawn hours, fishing for striped bass. All along the pale line of surf you could see us, vaguely human-shaped presences slightly darker than the sand. What made this surreal was that we almost never exchanged a word. We passed one another on the beach, sometimes quite closely, with no sign of recognition, like sleepwalkers ghosting through a dreamscape in which each was alone.
This etiquette of the sleepwalker also applies on western trout streams, I found. Guys—night anglers are usually guys—would appear from the darkness, move past me, and fade away without a sound other than the clicking of stones beneath their feet. Only back at the cars, illuminated by the headlights as we showed one another our catches, did we become three-dimensional beings again and regain the use of our tongues.

Naturally, the conversations never went much beyond fish and fishing. Personal subjects, such as why we were out there in the middle of the night in the first place, didn't come up. I could tell, though, that most of the nighttime anglers were middle-aged family men like me. I noticed infant car seats in the backs of their vehicles or pink plastic bottles of children's strawberry-scented sunblock on the dashes. I guessed that they, like me, had become nocturnal because of the forces of domestic life. They had no doubt discovered that if you return from a pleasant afternoon on the river to find the washing machine overflowing, the kids crying, and a bunch of relatives about to arrive, then you will be in for some unhappy discussions with your wife, and on the losing end of them, as well. But if you leave to go fishing with everyone tucked safely in bed and return after midnight with them still sleeping, you're free and clear. Plus you feel harmlessly sneaky, which is always important in a marriage.

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